'Into the Wild' a marketing puzzle for state

Officials say film can be used to promote Interior, but worry about an influx of unprepared visitors

Posted: Monday, September 24, 2007

FAIRBANKS - As the film version of "Into the Wild" opens in movie theaters, tourism officials and local leaders in Alaska face a challenge.

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They know the movie, which was filmed in and prominently features Interior Alaska, can be used to promote travel to Alaska. But they also worry about an influx of unprepared visitors coming to a remote, unmonitored and often dangerous part of the state.

"This whole thing is going to get legs. Everyone is going to promote it," said Neal Laugman, president of the Healy Chamber of Commerce.

"Into the Wild" tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from a wealthy East Coast family who threw away his material belongings to travel the country, eventually hitchhiking to Alaska and taking off on foot and with limited supplies into the wilderness near Denali National Park and Preserve, where he died in an abandoned city bus.

That bus has become a lodestar for travelers in the years since the 1996 release of Jon Krakauer's best selling book about McCandless. Hundreds of visitors have wandered down the Stampede Trail to visit the site and sign a book inside the bus. With the wide release of a major studio movie directed by Sean Penn, many expect those trips to increase.

"We're assuming now that area is probably going to be known worldwide," Denali Borough Mayor Dave Talerico said. "There's going to have to be some type of management for that."

The Stampede Trail runs through state land jutting into the northern end of Denali National Park. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources technically oversees the land and the trail but doesn't have the resources to continuously monitor the area, according to Jeanne Proulx, who manages permits for the Northern Region of the Department of Natural Resources.

Proulx said the department has just started discussing its options, which could include moving the bus.

"Movie-induced tourism," where a popular film prompts hundreds or even thousands of travelers to visit the sites portrayed on screen, has a well-documented history.

Visitation to Devil's Tower National Monument in Wyoming increased nearly 75 percent in the year following the release of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" in 1977, and recently New Zealand has profited from a spike in travel related the success of the "Lord of the Rings" movies.

Movies set in Alaska regularly come to the big screen, but the part of Alaska is usually played by Northern Canada, where filming has historically been cheaper than in the United States. Penn, however, made a point to film his movie in the Interior, mostly around Cantwell.

That could raise the profile of "Into the Wild" above other recent Alaska-based movies when it comes to tourism, according to Deb Hickok, president and CEO of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. She said the television show "Northern Exposure" played a role in her willingness to move to Alaska nearly a decade ago. That series was filmed in Washington state.

"If movies are positive about a destination, they have a lot of positive residual impact," Hickok said.

In an attempt to take advantage of the movie, the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau teamed up with Alaska Airlines and a Seattle travel agency to cross-promote the state with the movie by giving away a trip to Alaska.

The visitors bureau also plans to include an article about the book, the movie and the trail in its upcoming 2008 visitors guide, but at the behest of Laugman, the Healy chamber's president, decided to supplement the article with a cautionary note about the potential dangers of the trail.

"They have to understand there's more to this than making it another tourist destination," Laugman said.

Laugman said he doesn't want to stop people from visiting the bus but believes potential travelers need to know about the dangers of the Stampede Trail, which is not only poorly defined, bug infested and out of cell phone range, but also crosses the Teklanika River, which can rage in the summer and which prevented McCandless from getting back to the highway safely.

"Obviously, you can't protect people from themselves," Laugman said. "At the same time, we don't want to put people in harm's way."

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